President Obama’s second inaugural address was an exceptionally coherent and deeply revealing speech. Its coherence was impressive: Recent inaugurals, and especially those of re-elected presidents, have inclined toward the laundry list far more than this speech did. Obama made an argument, and one that holds together and advances a discernible worldview. It was in that sense a very successful speech, and while it may not be memorable in the sense of containing lines so eloquent or striking that they will always be associated with this moment and this president, it is a speech that will repay future re-reading because it lays out an important strand of American political thought rather clearly.
But because it does so, it is also revealing of the shallowness, confusion, and error of that strand of American political thought–that is, of the progressive worldview in our politics.
This speech was about as compact yet comprehensive an example of the contemporary progressive vision as we’re likely to get from a politician. It had all the usual elements. Its point of origin was a familiar distorted historical narrative of the founding–half of Jefferson and none of Madison–setting us off on a utopian “journey” in the course of which the founding vision is transformed into its opposite in response to changing circumstances, with life becoming choice, liberty becoming security, and the pursuit of happiness transmuted into a collective effort to guarantee that everyone has choice and security. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence are praised mostly for their flexibility in the face of their own anachronism, as their early embodiment in a political order (that is, the Constitution) proves inadequate to a changing world and must be gradually but thoroughly replaced by an open-ended commitment to meeting social objectives through state action.
The only alternative to state action, in this vision of things, is the preposterously insufficient prospect of individual action. “For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias,” the president said.
No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
The individual acting alone or the entire nation acting through its government, those are the only options we have. The space between the individual and the state is understood to be empty at best, and at worst to be filled with dreadful vestiges of intolerance and backwardness that must be cleared out to enable the pursuit of justice.
Our history is more or less a tale of an increasing public awareness of these facts. As we grew to understand that only common public action would suffice in an ever-changing world:
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
That modern economy and that free market are simply constants to be taken for granted–they will keep on humming, the only question is whether they will be placed under any restraints or direction. “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character,” the president said, so we need not worry about how to sustain them but only about how to contain them.
And as we grew to understand the virtues of such common efforts of containment and direction of the modern economy, we also advanced the struggle against those vestiges of backwardness that have raised obstacles to inclusion, scoring victories for justice in “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Never mind the 50 million human beings deemed insignificant because they were unwanted and snuffed out over the last four decades in the cause of choice. Indeed, the freedom to remorselessly exterminate these innocents, rather than the struggle to protect the life and dignity of the weak who dared by their existence and their neediness to disrupt the plans of the strong, is somehow given a place of honor in the register of social progress.
Having been delivered along the arc of that progress to this point, we should have a pretty good idea of what we ought to do next: the same thing but more so. After all, the logic of the narrative carries its own direction–toward a series of utopian if sometimes nonetheless remarkably trivial near-term goals (“our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote”) and a longer-term ideal of permanent universal political activism striving for an ever-more-perfect balance of moral individualism and economic collectivism.
As it is both moved by a hunger for justice and embodied in the American story (as its champions understand it), this course is taken to plainly occupy the moral high ground, and opposition to it can really only be explained by bad faith, bad motives, or bad reasoning. Thus, even as the advocates of this way of thinking style themselves pragmatists, they deem their opponents worse than wicked.
The president probably didn’t even quite see that his second inaugural was almost certainly the most partisan inaugural address in American history–more partisan than one delivered on the brink of civil war, or in the midst of it, or after the most poisonous and bitterly contested election in our history. He accused his political opponents of rabid (even stupid) radical individualism, of desiring to throw the elderly and the poor onto the street, of wanting to leave the parents of disabled children with no options, of believing that freedom should be reserved for the lucky and happiness for the few, and of putting dogma and party above country. Because it has exceedingly high expectations of politics, this view treats the failure to achieve its own goals as evidence of misconduct by others and of the inadequacy of the system we have. As White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer put it to the Washington Post this week, “There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important. What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.”
The first thing to say about this vision is that it is a serious set of ideas and in some important respects an appealing one. It seeks to put American politics on a modern idealistic foundation rather than the modern skeptical foundation on which our constitutional order has put it, and it understands the liberal society as a set of utopian objectives grounded in a set of rational ideals. That’s certainly one way to understand the liberal society, and it is a way with deep roots in American thought. I’ve always thought that describing the progressive worldview as some kind of German implant undersells it and distorts it. It is surely that in part, but it is also the working out of a strain of American liberalism that has been with us from the beginning. The progressives claim to a connection to Jefferson is not unfounded. But it is incomplete and ill-informed.
The progressives used to kno
w this. Herbert Croly understood that his claim to be applying to economic power the logic of the limits and restraints that Jefferson applied to political power was at least a little preposterous. He was not wrong to say that Jeffersonianism is in some tension with the Constitution–Jefferson surely thought so himself. But he was wrong to say that it pointed toward the sort of philosophical collectivism that the modern left is after. He was using a version of American history to make his case for change more palatable. But today’s progressives simply believe their own history and their own self-portrait. They really believe that the case for equality, for greater inclusion and civil rights, and for some protection from risk in the face of our tumultuous economy can only be grounded in the progressive worldview. Indeed, they take that view to be pragmatic common sense in light of a changing world, rather than a utopian ideology, and they therefore don’t grasp the radical inadequacy of the vision they’re espousing.
By espousing that vision more clearly than usual, the president’s speech revealed that inadequacy. It did so first and foremost by showing that (quite ironically, given how it praises itself for keeping up with change) progressivism today is highly anachronistic. As David Brooks astutely noted today:
The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation. They were enacted in a nation that was vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and needed taming.
We are no longer that nation. We are now a mature nation with an aging population. Far from being underinstitutionalized, we are bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code and a crushing debt.
In fact, in my opinion the lumbering and bogged-down character of our economy is the chief threat to the very economic security (not to mention prosperity) that the progressives say they are after. But Obama’s speech expressed no grasp of our current situation.
It is for that reason that he relied so heavily on straw men and absurd caricatures of his opponents’ positions. At one point, almost despite himself, the president stumbled upon the kind of thinking those opponents now actually offer, though he quickly picked himself up and continued to march in the opposite direction. In the middle of a case about how inequality calls for common action, he said:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
This is roughly the case for Paul Ryan’s budget. But the president opposes that approach, and in making this argument he pointed to some obvious objections to the rest of his speech without answering them. What programs are so inadequate that he is willing to see them reformed? Where is he willing to change the means to continue achieving the ends? What hard choices does he have in mind to reduce the deficit and the cost of health care? What does it mean to “reject the belief” that we are forced into a choice between the young and the old when we have massive government programs that compel exactly that choice and yet the president refuses to change them?
In fact, it is precisely the vision laid out in the rest of the president’s speech that has brought us to this difficult moment. Our foremost domestic challenges now almost all have to do with mitigating the enormous damage done to our economic dynamism, our social fabric, and our fiscal prospects by the public exertions most directly attributable to the sort of progressivism Obama laid out. This generation and the next one (at least) will spend their political energies trying to pick up the pieces of the Great Society and to construct alternatives to its foremost achievements that are better suited to the kind of country we are and want to be. And today’s progressives are very poorly suited to that task, because they do not see the problem, and they have a rather peculiar notion of the kind of country we are and want to be.
For conservatives to do better, it would be helpful to understand the left’s failings, and this speech is not a bad place to start. Look at the vision it lays out. It denies the relevance of our constitutional system, the value of civil society, the social achievement that is our culture of individual initiative and economic dynamism, the dignity of every life whether wanted by others or not, and the unsustainability of the liberal welfare state.
A coherent alternative would need to answer each of these errors and to put forward a political vision and program that champions the constitutional system and its underlying worldview, lifts up civil society as a key source of our strength, sustains the moral preconditions for democratic capitalism, protects every life, and transforms the institutions of the liberal welfare state into a robust safety net that guards the vulnerable and gives everyone a chance to benefit from and participate in our dynamic economy rather than shielding them from it. It is not hard to imagine such a combination of ideas because that combination, in its various forms, is what American conservatism stands for. It probably wouldn’t hurt to let the voting public know that.
Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.